Inside the Burns Archive

Words: Mark Edward Harris

Dr. Bontecou’s photographs are among the treasures in the million-plus image archive established in 1977 by another physician, ophthalmologist Dr. Stanley B. Burns. Dr. Burns’ unique collection does not end with the Civil War. Medical oddities, memorial and post-mortem photography, images depicting disease, disaster, racism, revolution, riots, war and conflict, crime and punishment, and various social and cultural histories are also included. Dr. Burns, along with his daughter, Elizabeth Burns, the Creative and Operations Director of the archive, exhibit and lecture on their rare and unusual photographs worldwide. The Burns have provided images and consulting services on numerous feature films, including Silence of the Lambs, Gangs of New York and The Others, and documentaries and television series such as The Civil War by Ken Burns and The Knick on Cinemax.

The Burns Archive has published more than 40 books, including their latest, Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons: Medical Photography and Symbolism (2015). Black & White caught up with the globetrotting Dr. Burns while he and his daughter were on a project in Richmond, Virginia.

What are you doing in Virginia?
We are working on a new PBS Civil War medical drama produced by Ridley Scott with the tentative title Mercy Street, set for release in 2016. I’m the executive medical historical and technical advisor, the same thing I’m doing on The Knick, which focuses on the staff of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital during the early part of the 20th century. For the project here in Virginia, I’m teaching the actors how to be doctors in the year 1862. I’m talking with them about the concepts of medicine back then, and what it was like to do surgery. In fact, I’m teaching them how to do surgery. I brought one of my original Civil War “capital” amputation kits.

So the archive has historic medical equipment as well as photographs?
I’ve collected some medical equipment. I’ve always been a historian and I’ve always been a collector, starting with stamps. My particular interest in the Civil War came from summers when I was a child in the 1940s. My parents rented a small bungalow in the Catskill mountain town of Harris, and next door was Mr. Calkins, an old gentleman whose father was in the Civil War. He had his father’s war paraphernalia and guns and would tell me the stories his father had told him. I really became a Civil War buff from that. I first collected Civil War firearms when I was going to medical school. That whole collection was sold to buy photographs.

Why did you start building a photography collection?
One day a friend showed me a quarter-plate daguerreotype of a South American Indian with a tumor of the jaw, which was operated on by Dr. Eliseo Acosta, the medical partner of President Vargas of Venezuela, who was also a doctor. The country was a banana republic at that time and eventually the president and Acosta had to flee to the United States, which is how the image made it here. When I looked up information on the photograph the written words did not match the picture. I realized that an unretouched photograph was the ultimate historic document. Since a lot of curators in museums collect photographs, I went after the unusual ones. I went after what was in my field, which is medicine.

I’m using my photographs to write history, focusing on relatively unexplored areas of photographic history and general history. As examples, the subjects for the next two books my daughter Liz and I are working on are the use of gas masks between the world wars and the Battles of Nomonhan. Between World War I and World War II gas was unquestionably the weapon of mass destruction. Everyone in the major European countries had government-issued gas masks. The photographs of “gas hysteria” are quite fascinating.

How did you acquire that?
I got that book in 2006. Liz and I had written a book on geisha and have had exhibitions every year since on Japanese historic photography at the Resobox Gallery in New York. I’ve gotten a lot of great things in my life because I publicize history. Some of the most famous daguerreotypes I’ve gotten because, as one person told me, “If I sold it, it would just disappear for decades into somebody’s collection.” But I want to publicize them. I was in the Japanese community and buying Japanese photos, so I got the opportunity to acquire this book. When you create exhibits that are landmark events, such as the Sleeping Beauty exhibition I did for the grand opening of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, you get attention, and other things come to you.

Are there copyright issues to deal with when doing books and exhibitions?
Most photographs taken before 1950 are out of copyright and in public domain. I won’t collect any photograph I can’t have the rights to. People like Ansel Adams and some of the other major art photographers would copyright their photographs, but the average person wouldn’t bother. So all these images went into public domain in 1950. Whoever has them now does not have the copyright, but they do have privacy rights. So if I have the photograph you can’t copy the photograph I own. Just like you can’t go into a museum and copy a painting for commercial usage. In 1978 there was a change in U.S. law, that from then on the copyright would be the life of the photographer plus 50 years. Before then it was 28 years; therefore, 1950 was the cut-off date for public domain.

What are some of the most prized possessions in your archive?
The albums by Reed Brockway Bontecou, who was chief surgeon at Harewood U.S. Army General Hospital in Washington, D.C., are my most prized items. They were originally in the government archives, and in 1915 his son asked for and got the pictures. I have the finest, most well-preserved set of Civil War wounded soldiers. I have a carte de visite album with 560 or so wounded soldiers being depicted and another album of 5×7 photographs, about 220 of those, then another album called the teaching album, where Bontecou drew on the photographs trying to show the path of the bullets and extent of injuries. They’re multimedia works of art. We usually have the prints and not the negatives. Glass negatives were often reused by scraping the emulsion off the glass plates and resensitizing them.

Take us back 150 years. If you were wounded in the Civil War, what were the odds of survival?
It depends. A brain wound, rare. Abdominal wound, rare. Chest wound, rare. We’re talking about a 95 percent-plus mortality rate. Also, every wound was infected. In Shooting Soldiers you’ll see a picture of a guy’s swollen arm; he was one of the few that lived from a secondary infection. He had gotten shot in the thumb. Amputation was really the treatment of choice during the Civil War. And what you didn’t amputate often got a deadly secondary infection. Thankfully, anesthesia had been invented in 1846 and was used over 80,000 times during the war.

What was the reason for Bontecou’s Civil War wounded series?
It was educational. The order from the surgeon general was that surgeons should submit photographs of their unusual cases. Bontecou was the largest contributor to the Army Medical Museum. There were others who submitted photos, but they weren’t as good. The others are just plain, most often boring clinical photographs.

Over the years medical photographs have become recognized as works of art, especially the photographs by Bontecou. It’s easy to take a photograph of a beautiful person. It’s very hard to take a great photograph of someone who’s disfigured or wounded or has a medical condition. Bontecou succeeded in doing it. Some of the photos you look at and don’t even realize the person is missing an arm or a leg or has a hole in his chest. He was able to transcend that aspect of photography to make something not beautiful acceptable and beautiful in many cases. Our Bontecou photographs were showcased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013.

He captured “the eyes are the window to the soul” mixed with a humanistic approach.
They’re looking straight at you. They’re well composed. He dressed them up. Their wound was not the subject. The subject was the human condition. It was a man who was missing an arm or a leg or had a terrible infection that was going to kill him. Many of them would eventually die of their wounds. After Bontecou established this type of portraiture the government realized it would be important for pension purposes, so soldiers were sent to the Army Museum, where two photographers, William Bell and E.J. Ward, took photographs. They were not taken during the war, as most of Bontecou’s were. There are lots of those photographs around, but they do not compare to these early artistic portraits.

The Civil War also took a heavy toll on the mental health of its combatants.
There was a condition called Irritable Heart, which described a syndrome many soldiers experienced during the Civil War. It was really PTSD. The Civil War was absolutely terrible. Your best friend or relative was being shot or blown up next to you. It really was a condition of great anxiety where people would have palpitations and other symptoms of fear and anxiety. But the development of psychiatry in the 19th century was often based on looks. So you had physiognomy and phrenology. They looked at the extremes such as microcephaly and what was then called a “mongoloid idiot” and thought there must be something in your features that said something about your psychiatric condition. So photographing patients for psychiatric diagnosis was an established part of the profession, especially by the end of the century. My books, Seeing Insanity and Patients and Promises: A Photographic History of Mental and Mood Disorders, show the development of that.

On the extremes there is a basis for all this. But there’s that slippery slope. “Oh, it’s the shape of the ears.” “It’s the shape of the nose.” “It’s the shape of the mouth.” Dr. Cesare Lombroso, the great Italian psychiatrist and criminologist, published books with people’s faces and wrote “This is what the Italian criminal looks like,” “the German criminal,” “the Russian criminal.”

Psychiatrists were trying to establish psychiatric identity based on features. Photography played a big role in that. As late as the 1940s William Herbert Sheldon developed his somatotypes based on body shapes and physical attributes. There was no basis for it, but doctors are always looking for answers. They look at every possible physical change, whether it’s blood pressure for high blood pressure or sugar for diabetes.

Physical measurements were perhaps the leading endeavor by American physicians in the 19th century. People were measuring everything to see if they could find a clue as to what was really happening on the inside. When you got to laboratory science and you were able to measure glucose in the blood and all that other stuff, you then had measurements that really meant something. The 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov and Paul Ehrlich “in recognition of their work on phagocytosis and the immune system.” These things were major accomplishments in the history of medicine. It’s often a step-by-step process. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants.

We can learn so much from these asides of history.
They tell us so much about who we are as human beings. Next to my medical collection, the largest section is my memorial photography collection—my Sleeping Beauty series. Taking pictures of your dead loved ones was a normal practice in the 19th century after photography came into being. It’s now being done again in the 21st century, as part of the bereavement process. Today, to not have a photograph is not to have existed.

One of the most well known photographs in your collection is the operating room image.
That was March 26, 1902 in Philadelphia with Dr. William Rodman, one of the major cancer surgeons of the time. What the audience of 222 people watching the doctor operate could learn was how doctors, anesthesiologists and nurses conducted themselves in the operating room. Over the years the audience has continually changed. It went from a place where strangers and passersby could watch surgery in the mid-19th century to today, where surgery is so private you can’t even tell someone who you’ve operated on. You have a closed, special audience.

I try to show that the doctors of the past were just as smart as we were, just as inventive, just as genius. They were trying their best to help and heal, but they labored under inferior knowledge and technology. A hundred years from now, when doctors look back at what we’re doing, they’ll say the same thing.

The operating theatre photo is so symbolic of the nature of the change in medicine. It shows the surgeon as the master of the new medical universe. Up until the end of the 19th century they couldn’t operate on the chest, the abdomen or the brain. People died. Aseptic surgery, new surgery techniques, the invention of the X-ray in 1895, made it possible to see what was going on inside the body and go after it.

Such images can be disturbing to many people. Is there anything that makes you squeamish?
Not that I can remember. It was just a matter of looking at disease, death and dying from a humanitarian point of view, and feeling bad at what I was seeing. My reaction was always to do something about it. We’re all interested in mortality and the vagaries of life. I try to present some way where people can cross that barrier and deal with it. I am a clinical professor of medicine, psychiatry and medical humanities at New York University Langone Medical Center. At rounds, I listen to the latest findings in medicine. I know what the future will be like. We’ll be diagnosing disease by identifying bacteria that are living on you and in you. We’ll be curing disease by giving you a virus infection that has a particle in the virus that will correct a genetic defect or give you a genetic immune reaction to cure disease and even cancer one day. This is the way it’s going.

Racism and religious intolerance are major non-medical themes in your collection.
One of my most famous images is of the ceremony for the freeing of the slaves in the French Empire. It’s a daguerreotype. The French never had slaves in Europe, but had slaves throughout their colonies. Finally on May 24, 1848 they issued a proclamation freeing the slaves, and they did it correctly, especially in the Caribbean. They paid the slave owners for the slaves and they gave the former slaves land. That’s why you didn’t have the racist trouble that we’ve had in this country.

My African-American collection is one of the biggest in the United States and contains a large number of lynching-vigilante images. The Indiana State Museum is traveling an exhibition I put together for them, Shadow and Substance: African American Images from The Burns Archive, with photographs of great achievements and shocking photographic evidence of intolerance.

I have a couple of hundred private albums from World War II German soldiers. They offer another view of the Holocaust. It’s not pictures of the concentration camps, but the pictures of what the Germans did personally in their own towns and in conquered lands. One of the images is of a sign posted at the edge of a town with a caricature of a Jewish man and woman, and it says something like, “You can enter this town. It’s Jew-free. You can raise your grandchildren here without any problems.”

It shows the German mindset of the period, which is symbolic of what’s going on today with ISIS and all these other radical religious groups. These kinds of photos give us a better idea of what people are thinking. Historic photographs provide a window into the human condition and behavior which helps show us how we have changed, and most importantly, what we need to change.

Fact File
You can explore Dr. Burns’ incredible collection, learn about upcoming exhibitions and purchase books at www.burnsarchive.com.

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Burns archive tertiary syphilis  george henry fox  bellevue  1883 Tertiary syphilis, George Henry Fox, Bellevue, 1883 (All Photographs © Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive)